International Women’s Day

– in the Scottish Parliament at on 7 March 2024.

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Photo of Annabelle Ewing Annabelle Ewing Scottish National Party

The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-12416, in the name of Kaukab Stewart, on international women’s day—global perspective.

Photo of Kaukab Stewart Kaukab Stewart Scottish National Party

It is a privilege to open the debate and make my first opening speech to the Parliament as the Minister for Culture, Europe and International Development. I am delighted to support a Cabinet in which the majority of members are women—indeed, it is believed to have the highest proportion of women of any Government in the world, which clearly demonstrates our commitment to equality in action.

Joining the ministerial team is an honour, particularly as I am the first woman of colour to hold a ministerial position in Scotland. I am proud to be that first woman, but I am determined that I will not be the last. Women of colour are leaders in their communities in Scotland and around the world and should be reflected in the leaders we elect to serve us. I look forward to working with colleagues from across the chamber.

It is a privilege to speak to the motion to mark international women’s day, whose theme this year is “Inspire Inclusion”. That serves as a reminder that gender inequality affects everyone. Resourcing and amplifying the voices of women, girls, other marginalised groups and advocates for human rights, particularly in the global south, is a vital lever for advancing gender equality in the pursuit of a fairer world.

We meet at a time of increasing global conflict, as our concerns continue to grow about the impact on all civilians who are affected by violence. We know that conflict disproportionately affects women. We see that in devastating reports from non-governmental organisations in Gaza that show that there has been an increase in the number of miscarriages and premature births. Pregnant women are having caesarean sections without anaesthetic, and others are being forced to use scraps of tents in place of period products.

The evidence is clear. UN Women reports that a peace agreement that includes women is 35 per cent more likely to last 15 years or more. Despite that, of 18 peace agreements that were reached in 2022, only one was overseen by women representatives.

When I represented the Parliament at the 66th Commonwealth parliamentary conference in Ghana, a clear thread among the remarkable and inspiring parliamentarians I met was that human rights are not just for some but for all. We must do more to ensure women’s full involvement in achieving and sustaining peace and stability.

Last week marked the second anniversary of Russia’s illegal war against Ukraine. I know that every member of the Parliament is shocked and appalled at the resulting violence and the humanitarian crisis that continues to unfold. Providing support and sanctuary for displaced people from Ukraine remains the Government’s priority. Since the war started, 26,000 people have come to the United Kingdom with sponsorship by a Scottish host or by the Scottish Government. Sixty per cent of all arrivals have been women, but we are particularly concerned that the UK Government’s visa changes will make it harder for families to be reunited in the UK.

We are investing more than £100 million in 2023-24 and more than £40 million in 2024-25 in the Ukrainian resettlement programme to ensure that people continue to receive a warm Scots welcome and are supported to rebuild their lives in our communities for as long as they need to call Scotland their home.

Photo of Ruth Maguire Ruth Maguire Scottish National Party

I welcome the minister to her role. I previously raised concerns that, even in a safe country such as Scotland, there are vulnerabilities for women who are resettling. How is the Scottish Government ensuring that women are kept safe, particularly when they move between locations?

Photo of Kaukab Stewart Kaukab Stewart Scottish National Party

When people are moving around, it is easy to slip through the system, but I hope that our equally safe strategy captures the situation for such women.

We must push forward to ensure that women’s and girls’ rights are at the heart of everything that we do at home and abroad. Our global perspective complements domestic equality policy, and the Conservative amendment is right to draw attention to the unacceptable practice of female genital mutilation, which is the physical manifestation of a deep-rooted gender inequality. FGM is illegal in Scotland and is recognised internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women. It is important that we work collectively to prioritise both protection and prevention.

Globally, there is growing momentum towards adopting a feminist approach to international policy considerations—one that is fair, intersectional and based on human rights. In Scotland, we are committed to taking a feminist approach to all of our international work. As part of that, we will continue to strive to give people who are most affected by structural inequalities and injustice, conflict, climate change and environmental damage a platform to speak for themselves, influence and make decisions.

Our commitment to invest in women and girls as advocates for human rights is clear. We have invested in the Scottish human rights defender fellowship programme and, as part of that, in 2023-24, we are supporting three women from the global south to undertake fellowships in Scotland on gender and the environment.

Since the programme was established, in 2018, we have welcomed 17 human rights defenders—the majority of whom have been women—from 16 different countries to participate in the programme, and we support them to further develop their skills and networks in safety.

We also fund the women in conflict 1325 fellowship programme, which is delivered by Beyond Borders Scotland. The United Nations Security Council resolution 1325 was the first Security Council resolution on women, peace and security, and our fellowship programme has, to date, helped 362 women peace builders by providing training and building their capacity in the prevention and resolution of conflict.

I am pleased to announce today that we have just awarded the contract for our new international development women and girls fund. Following a competitive process, the fund is the first new programme to be launched as part of the equalities programme, following our 2021 international development review. We will deliver the fund in partnership with Ecorys, in collaboration with the Forum for African Women Educationalists in Malawi, Rwanda and Zambia. In line with the UN sustainable development goal, the main aim of the new £3 million women and girls fund is to support the advancement of gender equality and the rights of women and girls in our African partner countries.

We recognise the lack of funding for women’s rights in the global south. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, in 2021, less than 1 per cent of global bilateral overseas development assistance for gender equality and women’s empowerment went specifically to women’s rights organisations and movements—the very organisations that are the key drivers of change in addressing gender inequality. When gender equality remains one of the greatest human rights challenges globally, that simply is not good enough, and the fund puts feminist principles into action.

As we begin phase 1, taking a grass-roots, participatory approach, the focus and delivery mechanisms will be designed by Malawian, Rwandan and Zambian women and girls. Through that process, local women and girls will be empowered to define and meet their priorities. They will have the decision-making power. The aim is to challenge and shift typical structural inequalities by moving beyond simply hearing the voices of women and girls to ensuring that their voices actually influence the actions that are taken. Reflecting our commitment to equalising power, the fund will provide direct funding to organisations led by local women and girls to support them to advocate and advance the rights of women and girls in their cultural context.

I am pleased to note that a guidance note outlining our approach to mainstreaming gender equality across our international development portfolio was published a few weeks ago. That aligns with our commitments to do no harm and to build more gender-responsive programmes. The new mainstreaming approach will, equally, apply to our new health and education programmes, which we will also launch in 2024.

It is important to recognise that women are not a homogeneous group—we exist in all our wonderful multifaceted diversity. We must remember that achieving gender equality does not involve just one glass ceiling being smashed. For many women, that metaphor does not illustrate the complexity of their experience when facing unique and compounding intersectional inequality. I know that, even if we break the glass ceiling and step into positions of influence, we then face glass walls. We continue to encounter prejudice, to not have our voices heard and to be overlooked when it comes to decisions that affect us.

In order to truly tackle structural inequality, therefore, gender inequality cannot be considered in isolation from other forms of discrimination. That is why we must ensure that intersectionality is at the heart of the feminist approach and that the voices that are amplified are as diverse as the communities that are impacted by our interventions.

By investing in women’s organisations, feminist networks and grass-roots movements, as advocates for human rights, we can support those who are speaking out for structural change and amplify the voices that are too rarely heard.

I am clear that inspiring inclusion requires a participatory feminist approach that invests in women and girls in the pursuit of transformed national and international systems that work for people and place.

I am pleased to move,

That the Parliament welcomes the 2024 International Women’s Day theme of “Inspire Inclusion”, which recognises that, when people understand and value women’s inclusion, they forge a better world; acknowledges that, at a time of increasing conflict affecting civilians around the world, the specific impact on women and girls can be profound; recognises that achieving gender equality is more vital than ever and remains one of the greatest human rights challenges globally; marks International Women’s Day and the second anniversary of the invasion of Ukraine, and welcomes the efforts of organisations and communities working tirelessly in pursuit of peace, inspiring inclusion, pushing forward on gender equality and amplifying the voices of women and marginalised groups, and notes the Scottish Government’s investment in women as advocates for human rights, and initiatives such as the Warm Scots Future, Women in Conflict 1325 Fellowship and Human Rights Defender Fellowship, and its commitment to a feminist approach to international relations.

Photo of Meghan Gallacher Meghan Gallacher Conservative

I take the opportunity to welcome Kaukab Stewart to her post as

Minister for Culture, Europe and International Development. We have worked together on the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee, and I look forward to our exchanges in the chamber from now on.

International women’s day is an opportunity to reset our focus on what we can do to improve the lives of women in the United Kingdom and around the world, but why do we need to mark this day in our diaries? UN Women explains that, globally, women are paid less than men. They are less likely to work, and more likely to work in informal and vulnerable employments. They are more likely to take on a higher proportion of unpaid care and to take on the majority of caring responsibilities, and they are more likely to be victims of domestic abuse. In addition, as the minister pointed out, we have less rights than our male counterparts worldwide.

That is why we mark international women’s day: not only to celebrate those who have been leading the charge to improve the lives of women globally, but to raise awareness of the inequalities that women face daily. We heard from the minister about the impact that recent conflicts have had, especially on women, and I am certain that we will hear more, as the debate progresses, on the many issues that women face when they are confronted with the brutality of war.

I have spoken in previous debates in the chamber on the illegal invasion of Ukraine. I will never forget the bombing of a hospital in Mariupol that claimed the life of a pregnant woman and her baby. I have also spoken on the Gaza-Israel conflict. I think that we will all remember 7 October 2023 as the day on which Hamas weaponised sexual violence. We saw videos of naked and bloodied women defiled by Hamas on the day of the attack; it emerged on social media for the whole world to see and watch on in horror.

We have heard witnesses sharing their trauma of seeing women raped before they were dead, with some raped while they were injured and some while they were already dead, when terrorists raped their lifeless bodies. We also saw the video of a pregnant woman who had her womb ripped open while she was still alive and saw her unborn baby stabbed before being murdered herself. Gang rape, mutilation and execution—that is what happened to innocent women who were enjoying a rave that was designed to promote peace.

Now, we have to watch on while the women and children of Gaza are trapped in a state of conflict, with shortages of food, shelter and hope. As the minister highlighted, they are in dire situations, praying that the fighting will stop to prevent further innocent people from dying.

That might be graphic detail to share during a debate on international women’s day, but I believe that it has to be shared to make sure that we are looking at this from a global perspective. Each of those women was someone’s mother, daughter, niece, cousin or friend, but they were also the women who paid a heavy price in war, and women will continue to do so while those conflicts are on-going.

As the Parliament continues to look at the global perspective of international women’s day, we must also look at the other issues that are experienced by women globally. Female genital mutilation became illegal in the UK in 1985. However, on Friday 16 February this year, Amina Noor, who is 40, was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment for assisting in FGM against a young woman while in Kenya. Metropolitan Police detectives secured the conviction after a complex and sensitive investigation, which began after the victim confided in a teacher about the abuse that had taken place nearly 12 years previously. Since the conviction, the Met has encouraged more victims to come forward to seek support from organisations and the police. I hope that the Scottish Government will echo those calls here, in Scotland, because it shocks me that, in 2024, we still have cases of FGM in the UK.

Amina Noor was the reason for my including the part of my amendment that is on FGM, because those who inflict pain and suffering on innocent people should never be able to get away with those heinous crimes. Those cases might be rare, but I do not think that we know the true extent of FGM or the number of perpetrators of those horrendous crimes against young women and girls. We must make sure that innocent women and girls are protected here in Scotland and, of course, in the rest of the UK.

Photo of Ruth Maguire Ruth Maguire Scottish National Party

During consideration of the bill that became the Female Genital Mutilation (Protection and Guidance) (Scotland) Act 2020, in the previous parliamentary session, the Equalities and Human Rights Committee heard from ethnic minority women who had suffered from FGM about their challenges in accessing healthcare that was suitable for them. Does the member agree that we absolutely have to address that issue?

Photo of Meghan Gallacher Meghan Gallacher Conservative

We absolutely do. That issue has had cross-party support in the past, and we can continue that support across parties to ensure that women who have had horrendous crime inflicted on them get the healthcare and support that they need.

I have spent a lot of time in the debate talking about the heinous crimes that are committed against women globally. I turn my attention back to the UK, where I began my remarks. Although we need to speak about things that are happening right across the world, here, too, women need their Governments to work for them, to promote them, to encourage them, to give them opportunities and, most importantly, to protect them and their rights.

Whether it is fulfilling the Government’s pledge to introduce free, funded childcare from nine months onwards; encouraging more girls to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects; protecting single-sex spaces; or introducing laws to protect women if they are victims of crime, women just want Governments to get on with it. That is a really important message that we can try to come together today to bring. Debates on those issues are for another day, because they belong in various portfolios and we do not have enough time to debate all of them in isolation.

I close by turning to all parents and carers who are bringing up, guiding, coaching and inspiring future generations of young women, in Scotland and beyond. I just want to say thank you. Thank you for everything that you do to raise the next generation of women who, I hope, will go on to be leaders in business, economics and academia, or—dare I say it?—a future First Minister or Prime Minister.

We, as parliamentarians, have so much to do to improve the lives of women, but it makes me proud to be an MSP on days like this, when we can all come together to celebrate international women’s day.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I am not sure that Ms Gallacher moved her amendment.

Photo of Meghan Gallacher Meghan Gallacher Conservative

I move amendment S6M-12416.1, to insert after “profound;”:

“expresses concern over the practice of female genital mutilation, which is still taking place in certain parts of the world; congratulates all parents and carers on raising the next generation of wonderful women;”.

Photo of Carol Mochan Carol Mochan Labour

I, too, take the opportunity to welcome the minister to her role.

On behalf of Scottish Labour, I welcome the opportunity to have this debate and to welcome international women’s day 2024 and its key theme of “Inspire Inclusion”.

It is only right that, at the start of my contribution, I focus on the global context in which we have the debate. Around the world, women face significant challenges, and some of the examples of that this year feel particularly heinous. As is noted in the motion, just over two years ago, Russia began a violent full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and the impacts of that on Ukrainian women have been devastating. We know the impact that that has had on the Ukrainian people, who continue to stand so strongly in the face of significant adversity.

We know that the impact on women, in particular, is disproportionate: Ukrainian women have been displaced internally and have had to seek refuge in countries such as our own to protect their, and, in many cases, their children’s safety. These women will always be welcome here for as long as they wish to make Scotland their home, and I hope that, in good time, the option will be there for a safe return to Ukraine for those women who desire it. Scotland and the UK should always be ready to provide safe haven to those people who are fleeing horrific war.

That brings me to the suffering of women in Palestine and Israel. The attacks on 7 October and the reported treatment of Israeli women were deplorable and wholly unacceptable and have rightly been met with widespread condemnation across the world. Following that, we have witnessed all-out war on the Gaza strip and the mass killing of tens of thousands of people, with many more currently starving to death as a result of the bombardment and limited access to aid.

I have raised this many times previously—and the minister mentioned, too—that there are currently around 50,000 pregnant women in Gaza. Of that number, 40 per cent are considered to be at high risk, which is extremely concerning. Humanitarian aid must be allowed in to provide those women with the support that they so desperately need.

Just yesterday, MSPs and staff had the opportunity to hear from Medical Aid for Palestinians and Oxfam about their experiences from the ground. Of all the points that were raised, the most harrowing was that women in Gaza are giving birth in unsterile conditions, which is extremely dangerous for the mother and the baby. However, substantive issues do not seem to be being taken on and work does not seem to be being done in that area. We must work harder to get women the aid that they need for childbirth. As we mark international women’s day, we cannot forget those women, and we must redouble our efforts to ensure that they receive the support that they need before it is too late. At this stage, I fear that it might already be too late for so many women and their children.

Closer to home, I absolutely agree with the points that were set out in the motion about the fact that “achieving gender equality” is more important now than perhaps ever before. The challenges that we face remain significant. Violence against women and girls remains at a disturbingly high level, and we have seen in recent times how misogyny is ingrained in some of our largest public bodies. Our fight is by no means over, and we must continue to fight with determination to achieve the equality that we so deeply want.

Women who live in areas of higher levels of deprivation in Scotland perhaps experience inequality more than others, and that is particularly the case in the health sector. In women’s health services, we have inequalities in the uptake of human papillomavirus vaccination and screening programmes. People live longer in good health in the most affluent areas of Scotland compared with those people who live in deprived areas—for women, that gap is quite stark, at 25.7 years. That is unacceptable, and we must all strive to change it.

There is undoubtedly a need for a global approach to protecting human rights, supporting marginalised groups and amplifying the voices of women. However, it would be wrong to have this debate without recognising the challenges that we face on our own doorstep, which we must always think of.

For far too long, women’s health services have not delivered for those women in our most vulnerable communities. That creates inequality between women, which in itself is a challenge that we must work tirelessly to overcome. Without community-based provision of women’s health services that go to the individual rather than depend on the individual going to them, we will never achieve the equality that we speak about today.

International women’s day is an excellent opportunity to unite around a common purpose and to reiterate the calls that we have been making for so many years to encourage men to speak up, be accountable and be part of the fight. However, it also requires us, in this Parliament, to recognise how our decisions can impact equality and to be realistic about the experiences of people in our own country.

I look forward to listening to the contributions to the debate. There are many different angles from which we could all have approached the subject, but it is right that we take the opportunity to discuss the global context, given the extremely concerning events that are unfolding in Ukraine and the middle east.

It is important that we also look closer to home, to our more domestic position, and it is right that we look to progress as much as we can in this country in politics, in education, in the workplace and in other places. The fight ahead for women in Scotland and across the world is not an easy one. It requires the efforts of us all to achieve the equality that is so long overdue. I commit my party to doing what it can to play its role across Parliament to take that fight on.

Photo of Beatrice Wishart Beatrice Wishart Liberal Democrat

I, too, welcome the minister to her new role.

This international women’s day, my thoughts are with the women around the world who are affected by conflict and violence. It is two years since Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine—two years in which Ukrainian women’s lives have been turned upside down. Many have been forced from their homes, 72 per cent of unemployed Ukrainians are women, and 8 million women and girls will need humanitarian assistance this year.

In Gaza, women are struggling to survive displacement, bereavement and lack of access to basic necessities. Women are giving birth without access to water, painkillers or anaesthesia for caesarean sections, and they are going without food to give what they can to their children. The stories that we are hearing are heartbreaking and remind us that violent conflict intensifies pre-existing gender inequalities and discrimination.

A United Nations report in 2022 showed that the number of women and girls living in conflict-affected areas had increased by 50 per cent since 2017. However, as the minister has highlighted, although women are disproportionately impacted by violent conflict, they are underrepresented in peace processes. Of the 18 peace agreements that were reached in 2022, only one was signed or witnessed by a representative of a women’s group or organisation, and in recent years only between 20 per cent and 30 per cent of peace agreements include provisions that reference women, girls and gender, despite women having led successful negotiations at local levels to secure access to water and humanitarian aid, to prevent and resolve tribal conflicts and to mediate local ceasefires.

The sidelining of women in peace negotiations does everyone a disservice. This international women’s day theme is “Inspire Inclusion”. Women’s participation in peace processes makes agreements more durable and sustainable. I recognise the Scottish Government’s work in that area, having previously corresponded with the previous equalities minister on the topic.

I am pleased that the women in conflict 1325 fellowship programme has continued this year. The need for humanitarian and development aid is clear, but a UK Government internal report last year warned that the cuts to its aid budget will result in hundreds of thousands of women facing unsafe abortions, thousands of deaths in childbirth and thousands more women being left without access to healthcare and health services. That is a stark reminder of the consequences of the cuts. The UK Government must reinstate the 0.7 per cent commitment.

The report also shows that budget decisions are not gender neutral. Gender-responsive budgeting is needed across all Government spending. It ensures that fiscal policies and budgets target gender inequalities and support inclusive development for all.

There is a need to consider how women’s organisations in Scotland are funded. A model of funding through the Scottish Government, such that organisations can spend more of their time helping women than they do searching for funding, merits further exploration.

Another aspect of inclusion that is crucial for gender equality is education. Gender equality and education benefit every child. Girls and boys are empowered with life skills, skills gaps that perpetuate pay gaps are closed, and reductions are seen in gender-based violence, including child marriage. However, around the world, 129 million girls are out of school. The barriers to girls’ inclusion in education are many. They include poverty, lack of safety, poor sanitation and hygiene for girls in schools, child marriage and boys being favoured for investment in education. Supporting girls not just to attend but to thrive at school is key.

In Afghanistan, where women are being denied rights to education, Scottish charity The Linda Norgrove Foundation has been working hard to sponsor 20 medical students to come to Scotland to complete their studies. I supported the campaign last year and look forward to hearing about the women’s progress.

Women make up 51 per cent of Scotland’s population, but figures from Engender show that there is a clear imbalance in women’s inclusion in leadership and decision making. Forty-five per cent of MSPs are women, but only 35 per cent of local councillors are women. Just over a fifth of sheriffs and senior police officers, and 35 per cent of public body chief executives, are women. That raises important questions for us to consider. How are women involved in designing policies and programmes? Do we ask ourselves how policies can tackle discrimination? Do we identify and prevent the unintended consequences of reinforcing inequalities?

In Shetland, all three council leadership positions—leader, convener and chief executive—are currently held by women, and with me as the MSP, this is the first time that four women have held those posts at the same time. However, there is much more to be done at home and globally.

Photo of Karen Adam Karen Adam Scottish National Party

I welcome and celebrate seeing Kaukab Stewart in her new role as minister.

Reflecting on international women’s day, with the theme this year being “Inspire Inclusion”, I think about how ensuring full female participation could be boundless. With women playing equal roles in leadership, innovation and decision-making processes, societies around the world stand to benefit from diverse perspectives that lead to more comprehensive and effective solutions to global challenges.

Inclusion of women in the workforce and in leadership roles has been shown to enhance organisational performance, drive economic growth and foster more equitable distribution of resources.

On a global scale, embracing gender equality and women’s empowerment can lead to more stable and just societies in which human rights are upheld and everyone has the opportunity to thrive—unlike in the horror of war, as has been described to us in the debate.

Inspiring inclusion through international women’s day sends a powerful message to future generations about the value of diversity and equality. It lays the groundwork for a world in which every young girl can dream without limitations, pursue her aspirations and contribute to her community without facing gender-based barriers. The celebration of the day reaffirms our commitment to building inclusive societies in which the voices of women and girls are heard, respected and integrated into the fabric of our collective future.

The fight for female emancipation still goes on. A definition of female emancipation is that it is

“Process, strategy and myriad efforts by which women have been striving to liberate themselves from the authority and control of men and traditional power structures, as well as to secure equal rights for women, remove gender discrimination from laws, institutions and behavioural patterns, and set legal standards that shall promote their full equality with men.”

Intersectionality is a vital aspect of our fight in this area. When I look across the chamber, I do not see it reflecting the Scotland that I see outside. Proportionally, we do not fully represent women relative to the population demographic, but that should be the goal. In that intersectionality, we must include women who have been minoritised as a result of their ethnicity, disability or LGBT identity.

I recognise the work of the Parliament in its gender-sensitive audit board, in which I am honoured to have played a part. I acknowledge political parties such as mine that ensure that there are mechanisms to achieve representation by women. Unfortunately, however, such mechanisms are still controversial to some people, and we hear one comment at a time, from “What about international men’s day?” to “But we had a female First Minister.” We still battle ignorance on the road to full female participation.

It is not just about participation, and it is not just about getting women in here and in other traditionally male-dominated spaces. It is about what we do to make those places fit for female purpose. In institutions that have been led by men for so long, we find that there is an exhausting amount of work to do when we get there. In order to ensure that we truly inspire inclusion on a global stage, we must first ensure that we stand in inspiring spaces and that we get our own house in order.

This week, I had an interview with a university student, in which we spoke about the role that the media have to play in women’s participation in politics. It was grim to go over the old ground of what I have faced, but when I look around this chamber, I see many women across all parties who have been subjected to the most horrific online abuse. Oftentimes, our appearance and our delivery are criticised and considered over the content of what we say. The misogyny that many of us face in broad daylight will not inspire anyone to join us.

I think about all the women whom I have spoken to about getting involved in decision-making roles, whether in a council or in Parliament, but their reasons for not doing so are pretty compelling. I know that because I remember having such reservations. Many women say things such as, “With all my caring responsibilities, I don’t have the time,” or “I don’t think I’d be good enough.” Women have often said to me, “I see what you go through in the media. There’s no way I’d put myself up for that.”

So, when I think about what “Inspire Inclusion” means to me and how I, or we, can do that, I think first about how far we have come as women, with the fight for representation and suffrage, and the movement from being told what our roles were to being able to define what roles we want—being able to choose. I reflect on how I was inspired to be who I chose to be, without fear or favour.

In my speech today, I want to inspire. It is hard to do that given the reality around us, but fighting for our place was never going to be easy, and while we women in the chamber stand our ground, I want to remind women of all parties—I might also remind myself of this—that there are so many women out there who are rooting for us and seeing examples that they might follow.

Photo of Sharon Dowey Sharon Dowey Conservative

I a m pleased to speak in this debate ahead of international women’s day. It is important that we recognise the progress that has been made on gender equality in recent years. Women are now more likely to be in positions of responsibility than they were even just a few years ago, but there is still an incredibly long way to go.

Progress in Scotland and across the UK has been slow. Women continue to be underrepresented in almost every area of public life and the gender pay gap has barely moved. The Poverty Alliance says that women are more likely to be living in poverty. Women’s safety is threatened far too often. Our rights can often be put at risk—even, I am sad to say, in this very Parliament, on occasion. That is just the picture here at home.

The Government’s motion focuses on global issues that women face. Internationally, in many places, there are very few signs of positive steps forward. In many parts of the world, women are still treated as second-class citizens. We will all have watched in horror as women’s rights have been ripped up in Afghanistan since the return to power of the Taliban. The tragic loss of basic standards of respect for women in that country is heartbreaking. The stories of violence are a dreadful reminder of how lowly women are still viewed in some countries. Almost as hard to listen to are the stories of the many young women who are now denied the chance to be educated and to better themselves. That is a terrible shame, and it will hold back generations of girls who have done nothing wrong. Their only offence—if we can call it that—is to have been born in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Sadly, that situation is not an isolated example. In Iran, although initially it seemed that minor improvements might happen as a result of the widespread protests over Mahsa Amini’s death, things appear to be as bad as ever. Police target women solely because of what they wear, and women’s freedom continues to be brutally restricted.

As we have seen in Ukraine, Israel and Gaza, too often it is women who bear the brunt of horrific violence against innocent people. Others have highlighted similar situations in other countries. We could all cite many more examples that should appal and dismay us, but today, as the shadow minister for justice, I want to focus my comments on violence against women here in Scotland. In this country, too, women face the threat of violence all the time. I am sure that, at one time or another, every woman in this chamber will have felt the need to alter their behaviour to keep themselves safe. I am sure that we have all been threatened and abused online and even in person.

The statistics are shocking. Police Scotland records more than 170 incidents of domestic abuse every single day and almost 65,000 instances of domestic abuse were recorded in the most recent year for which we have data. I appeal to the Government to act decisively in making the necessary changes, here, at home in Scotland, to prevent violence against women. It is a global problem, but we can make a difference by acting locally.

As colleagues have noted, the theme for this year’s international women’s day is “Inspire Inclusion”. In that spirit, I think that the most inspiring thing that the Government could do here to encourage women’s inclusion would be to prevent the violence that too often derails and destroys lives.

Today’s debate is welcome and worth while, but actions speak louder than words and women in this country need action from the Government. Scotland’s justice system is too often stacked against victims. The Government could put more victims on the Scottish Sentencing Council, thereby giving them a voice in any new proposals. Domestic abuse in Scotland is at near-record levels. The Government could agree to the proposal by my colleague, Pam Gosal MSP, for a domestic abuse prevention bill that would give survivors more support and give the police more powers to prevent assault.

Women are underrepresented in our justice system. Only one in five sheriffs, one in four judges and one in three police officers are women. The Government could act to make those professions more attractive to women and to encourage more girls to consider those occupations as future careers.

Those are just a few examples of actions that the Government could take immediately to make Scotland a better place for women.

I fully support the Government’s motion and the minister’s comments. I have already welcomed her to her role; it is good to see her here. It is right that we constantly promote gender equality internationally, that we champion women’s rights and that we look at how to make life better for women across the globe, but on international women’s day we should also urgently examine what we can do in this country to make Scotland a safer place. We should overhaul the justice system and ensure that victims’ voices are heard. We should seek to prevent violence against women and we should inspire inclusion by ensuring that every woman feels safe and secure.

On international women’s day, it is right to speak about rights for women globally, but we must be prepared to act to improve the same rights for women locally.

Photo of Marie McNair Marie McNair Scottish National Party

I, too, take the opportunity to welcome the minister to her role.

I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate on international women’s day. The theme this year is “Inspire Inclusion”, which recognises that, when people understand and value women’s inclusion, they forge a better world.

Standing in this Parliament, I feel proud to recognise that our Scottish Cabinet is a testament to that, with more women than men in the top roles. It shows our young women that reaching the top positions in politics can be an achievable goal. That is something that we should never give up on. It is something to protect and should be the norm. Studies show that that also makes us truly better off. States where women hold more political power are less likely to go to war or to be weak on human rights. That is significant and highlights the practical importance of having women in positions of power.

Of course, much more must be done on representation. According to Engender’s report “Sex & Power in Scotland 2023”, women account for only 27 per cent of council leaders, 26 per cent of university principals and 7 per cent of chief executive officers of Scotland’s top businesses. Although the report notes improvements in some areas, such as political institutions and the health sector, the figures show that women are still missing from key roles. When the burdens of childcare, household labour and care for relatives still rest firmly on women’s shoulders, it can feel more difficult for women to progress. That is not how it should be, but studies have found that women undertake three times more of the world’s care and domestic work than men. That is why it is so important to celebrate how far the Scottish Government has gone to alleviate some of that burden and to ensure that women here are not forced out of their jobs or of public life.

The Poverty Alliance correctly asserts that women’s poverty is completely interlinked with child poverty. That is why the Scottish child payment is so important and welcome, along with the expansion of free childcare, which has made 1,140 hours a year available to all three and four-year-olds and eligible two-year-olds. The introduction of carers allowance supplement corrected a wrong that was created and maintained by successive Westminster Governments, and other measures that ensure that women are treated as equals include the Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Act 2021, which, following collaborative work, enshrined free access to period products in law. Although more can be done, those measures are significant and they make an impact on women’s lives.

When we reflect on international women’s day, it is important that we look more widely and take a global perspective rather than focusing only on our country, and doing so highlights the discrepancies in women’s equality and inclusion in public life across different countries. There is no escaping the fact that conflict always has a gendered nature. In the second year of the invasion of Ukraine, that is very clear. Women are giving birth in basements and in high-stress conditions, and men were forced to remain behind while women and children migrated out of Ukraine to neighbouring countries. In Gaza, women and children are expected to be hardest hit as women tend to vastly deprioritise their food intake when access to food is restricted and they face even higher health and malnutrition risks, not only for themselves but for their babies. Overcrowding and a lack of privacy in temporary shelters, coupled with scarce resources, can lead to disputes and violence, including gender-based violence. The lack of access to adequate water, sanitation and hygiene facilities for menstruation hygiene management affects women’s and girls’ dignity as well as their mental and physical health.

That is why the Scottish Government’s investment in women as advocates for human rights and initiatives such as the warm Scots future, the women in conflict 1325 fellowship, the human rights defender fellowship and the commitment to the feminist approach to international relationships are so important in the long term, as the minister mentioned.

International women’s day is also a time to recognise the work of local groups in our community and to thank them for everything that they do to support women. My sincere and eternal thanks go to Clydebank Women’s Aid and East Dunbartonshire Women’s Aid, which provide support, information and refuge to women. They are quite literally lifelines to many women out there.

Today also serves as a call to action for our leaders to redouble their efforts to create a world where women are included. We must work to dismantle systems that hold women back. Importantly, we must take an intersectional approach when we consider women’s inclusion to ensure that women of colour, disabled women, refugee women, women of minority faith communities, LGBTI women, older and younger women, women from deprived areas and women from other minority groups are deeply involved in their communities and feel included.

I welcome all the contributions to today’s debate. Let us collectively forge a more inclusive world for the women out there.

Photo of Paul O'Kane Paul O'Kane Labour

Presiding Officer, I apologise to members that I will have to leave before the end of the debate and I thank you for your understanding in that regard.

I am pleased to lend my voice in this debate in support of the continuing work that we must do to realise equality for women and girls, not just at home but around the world. I acknowledge the many powerful contributions that we have heard from my colleagues on the Labour benches and the leadership that women in my party and across the Parliament have shown in working to break down barriers, smash glass ceilings and staircases and support other women to become engaged and involved in politics and public life. On that note, I welcome the minister to her place in her first debate in her new role.

However, we know that we have so much more to do, and it is clear to me that men have so much more to do. In contributing to previous debates on these issues, such as the debate in November on the 16 days of activism against gender-based violence, I have focused largely on the role that men must play in bringing about change and equality, and I intend to do that again in the time that I have today. The theme of this year’s international women’s day, which is “Inspire Inclusion”, is critical to changing men’s attitudes to women in all aspects of life.

As the UN’s IWD campaign organisation notes, when women are not present, all of us, but men in particular, need to ask why they are not. What could we change to make spaces more accessible to women? What could we change in our own behaviour, or call out in the behaviour of others, to ensure that all spaces are inclusive? What do we need to change in our systems to ensure that we actively encourage more women into those spaces, to promote equality?

I am proud of the work that my political party and movement has done in playing such a large part in advancing gender equality over many years. A previous Labour UK Government passed the Equality Act 2010, and Scottish Labour MSPs have been ferocious campaigners on ending period poverty, increasing women’s representation in politics and tackling the on-going problem of gender-based violence. However, we know that, across this Parliament and other legislatures, there is much more work to do towards achieving equality and inclusion.

As we have heard during the debate, we need to face up to the challenges that we, in Scotland, continue to see in our systems, and, in particular, in our workplaces. In workforces in which the majority of workers are women, we must properly value and develop roles and pay structures so that we can support women to get out of poverty and into long-term sustainable work that pays them not just to get by but to get on. We must continue to examine the issue of institutionalised sexism in the social security system and the unfairness that is embedded in some of its payments. In our justice system, too many women are failed, ignored, sidelined or treated with appalling misogyny. On today of all days, that should be at the forefront of all our minds. In healthcare, we must move forward with purpose—for example, on the creation of buffer zones so that women can access their right to healthcare free of harassment.

As legislators, we have an important role to play in all that work. On wider social and cultural levels, men have a similarly important role in ensuring that the burden of opening up spaces to make them more inclusive and to make society more respectful does not fall on women. Instead, the burden should fall on men to listen, change their behaviour and proactively take steps forward, rather than just expect someone else to take responsibility.

I am therefore pleased to support campaign groups such as White Ribbon Scotland, which does vital work in challenging pervasive and persistent misogyny, which is so often the root cause of enduring inequality and exclusion. I am also pleased to work with organisations such as Close the Gap, which works to close the economic gap that remains a barrier to women’s inclusion in the labour market and other places. It is crucial that we educate men, in particular, about such on-going work.

Domestic issues and work to change approaches remain a priority but, as we have heard, the issue is about more than just the problems here at home. Right across the globe, women and girls find themselves facing violence, oppression and misogyny every day. In the face of war and state violence, women stand up for their rights and, in many cases, their lives with incredible bravery. In Iran, women and girls risked everything to protest against the death of Mahsa Amini and the actions of the hardline regime’s morality police. In Afghanistan, women are fighting to retain their freedom and their lives following the Taliban’s return to power. In conflict zones from Ukraine to Africa, women’s rights organisations lead efforts to ensure the upholding of international law and to stop sexual violence being used as a tool of war. Our thoughts turn to the experiences of the women in Israel who were taken hostage by Hamas on 7 October and who have still not returned to their families, and to those in Palestine who, as many members have already referenced, are suffering unimaginable horrors in the most desperate of situations. Tomorrow, on international women’s day, we should all redouble our calls for an immediate ceasefire in that war—an end to rocket fire in and out of Gaza, the return of hostages and an end to violence and bloodshed—as we aspire to a two-state solution where no woman has to live in fear.

It is incumbent on us all to play whatever small part we can to support and stand with women, to ensure that they are empowered as agents of change, to call out and hold accountable the perpetrators of violence against them, and to ensure that men change and regulate their behaviour and the behaviour of others. We must all work together to make the change that we want to see in the world.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

I advise members that there is no time in hand, so they will need to stick to their time allocations.

Photo of Jamie Halcro Johnston Jamie Halcro Johnston Conservative

I, too, welcome the minister to her new role.

I am pleased to be able to speak in today’s international women’s day debate. For more than a century, this event has recognised the remarkable achievements of women and girls around the world. This year’s theme of “Inspire Inclusion” resonates deeply with our commitment to fostering a more equitable world by championing the inclusion of women in all aspects of society.

It is right, however, that, as we come together to celebrate the undoubted progress that has been made, we also confront the persistent challenges that women and girls face, both here, in Scotland, and globally. Around the world, we witness grave injustices: the regressive measures enforced by the Taliban in Afghanistan, including the denial of education; the subjugation of women in Iran, highlighted by their restrictive dress codes and treatment, including the killing of women who so bravely stand against it; and, most recently and most shockingly, the appalling weaponisation of sexual violence against women and girls by groups such as Hamas, and in Ukraine by Russian forces. As horrific as those examples are, they are just the tip of the iceberg that is the daily mistreatment of women and girls. Those may be the most high-profile examples—those that gain the most headlines—but, every day across the world, women and girls are denied education, forced into underage marriages and female genital mutilation or exploited by people traffickers into modern slavery. They are denied opportunities solely because of their sex.

Those realities underline the on-going struggle for gender equality and security on a global scale. They remind us—if we needed reminding—that we can never afford to be complacent. While the UK and Scotland have seen progress, we cannot ignore the many challenges that women and girls here continue to face. There has been an alarming rise in violence against women in Scotland, and it is our duty to address the issue with urgency and determination. As others have highlighted, in Scotland, domestic abuse incidents are close to their highest level on record. There were nearly 65,000 recorded incidents of domestic abuse in 2021-22; only the previous year was worse. Seven domestic abuse-related killings were reported last year, and there were nearly 500 charges of attempted murder and serious assault related to domestic abuse.

As others have done, I welcome my colleague Pam Gosal’s efforts in drafting a domestic abuse register bill, which would require those placed on it to report changes in their circumstances to the police. The bill would ensure that rehabilitation was mandatory for those convicted under the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018.

As someone from an island community who represents the vast Highlands and Islands region and its many dispersed communities, I would also like to speak briefly about the impact that rurality can have. Many women and girls in my region live further from the vital support that those living in urban areas take for granted. Even when services are accessible, they can be limited. When a victim of domestic violence in a remote community is brave enough to call for help, that help can take longer to arrive. When someone suffers a sexual assault, medical and emotional support can take longer to be given. That can, too often, prolong or even increase the suffering of victims, who in some cases are then expected to continue to live in small communities, with their abusers living nearby. That can make many women and girls feel isolated and alone, and more must be done to ensure that that is not the case. I take this opportunity to commend all the organisations, and those in my region in particular, that work so hard in doing their best to ensure that women and girls in such situations are provided with the help and support that they need as speedily and comprehensively as possible.

A female colleague of mine said to me only yesterday that women’s rights are like a pendulum, warning that that can easily swing back as it has swung forward over the past few years, that hard-earned gains can be lost and that the progress that has been made is not irreversible. I have real fear for the next generation, given the challenges that they face. Only yesterday we debated violence in schools, and I know of many incidents in which young girls have been targeted, their suffering often being filmed and then shared on social media. Incidents of explicit image sharing and revenge porn are increasing. Cases of drink spiking have become more frequent. The number of sexual crimes in Scotland rose to nearly 14,900 in 2023.

The growth of artificial intelligence only creates more challenges, which I do not think society or any Government is close to addressing or even understanding. Added to that, we have the rise of incel culture and those who promote it, and the latent toxic masculinity that society has ignored for too long.

Before I conclude, I will turn briefly to our profession. Although I recognise what Karen Adam said, there has been some positive change. Three women have now led the UK Government, the Scottish Parliament has had a female First Minister, and all three major parties in the chamber have been led by a woman. In local government, the leaders of three of the six councils in my Highlands and Islands region are women: Kathleen Robertson in Moray Council, Emma Macdonald in Shetland Islands Council and, most recently, Heather Woodbridge in Orkney Islands Council, which is my home council. That is progress. I commend the efforts of those in all political parties and communities who are working to ensure better representation for women and other groups. However, we all know that we can and must do more.

I will never be able to put myself in the position of women—to be overlooked or feel undervalued because I am a woman; to feel unsafe in places where I should be able to feel safe because I am a woman; or to face barriers because I am a woman. However, I am a son, a brother and a friend, and I will always fight for my family, my friends and my female colleagues to have the opportunities that they should have by right.

Ahead of international women’s day tomorrow, I reaffirm my commitment to celebrate women’s achievements, to raise awareness of discrimination, and to take action to drive gender parity.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I reinforce the fact that members will need to stick to their speaking allocation. I call Maggie Chapman. You have up to six minutes, Ms Chapman.

Photo of Maggie Chapman Maggie Chapman Green

International women’s day is a day for solidarity—a day to stand with women all over the world. It is a chance to reflect on the achievements and victories of past campaigns and to acknowledge how far we still have to go.

We know that women bear the brunt of social injustice and economic and environmental inequalities in Scotland and globally. Women live with the consequences of those inequalities every day. Women die because of the consequences of those inequalities every day.

It is right and appropriate that the motion recognises the impact of conflict on women and girls. We are all acutely aware that it does so in the context of not only the invasion of Ukraine, but the bitter genocide in Gaza, the on-going devastation of Yemen, and the often-forgotten refugee and humanitarian crisis in South Sudan.

There is much in the motion that deserves discussion, but I want to focus on two related issues: the Scottish Government’s commitment to a feminist approach to international relations and the need to amplify the voices of women and marginalised groups.

When we commit ourselves to a feminist approach, we also commit ourselves to asking exactly what that means in specific situations—especially situations of conflict. A feminist policy is, of course, an ethical policy, but it goes beyond that. It means being critical in the best sense of the word, asking difficult questions, developing rather than inheriting positions, and always being open to challenge. That challenge comes first and foremost from the experiences of those whose lives, hopes, homes and futures are directly affected by our actions and omissions.

A genuinely feminist foreign policy has particularly difficult questions to ask in relation to conflict. How far are political rather than solely military solutions being sought and progressive voices on all sides being supported? What role are women playing in peace negotiations? How effectively are combatants and civilians being distinguished, recalling not only the horrors of collective punishment but the dangers of forced universal conscription in creating and reinforcing gender binaries and prioritising technical competence over the minimisation of harm? Are we resisting the glorification of the military, including mobilised children? Are we exploring the ethical dilemmas of arms provision, sanctions and increasing military expenditure? How far is our policy mindful of the particular needs, rights and vulnerabilities of women and children, especially those who face intersecting oppressions and challenges? While showing solidarity with all victims of war, are we acknowledging colonial and political histories in which our own traditions may be complicit? Why are those considerations so often afterthoughts and luxuries, seemingly irrelevant to the important business of war?

Svetlana Alexievich, the Nobel prize-winning oral historian and activist, wrote in “The Unwomanly Face of War”:

“Everything we know about war we know with ‘a man’s voice.’ … When women speak, they have nothing or almost nothing of what we are used to reading and hearing about: how certain people heroically killed other people and won. Or lost. What equipment there was and which generals.

Women’s stories are different and about different things. ‘Women’s’ war has its own colors, its own smells, its own lighting, and its own range of feelings. Its own words. There are no heroes and incredible feats, there are simply people who are busy doing inhumanly human things.”

Women’s stories are of people doing human things. So, we come to my second focus, which is on amplifying voices—listening to those who can speak with truth but who may not be heard. I am conscious that, even in here, some voices are easier to hear than others—and that those who reach us at all are, to some extent, privileged. However, that is a reason not to close our ears but to listen more deeply—to understand more and understand better.

I will end by reading from the work of two contemporary women poets. The first piece, by Threa Almontaser, from “Operation Restoring Hope”, in “The Wild Fox of Yemen”, is:

“Death doesn’t choose who it favors. A missile does.

It might go for the last field of melons.

Or a front gate the uncles just painted, white as bonefish, its tips reaching the lowest heaven. It can choose the funeral, kill one hundred forty, wound five hundred more.

There is no time for mourning. The people of Yemen are tossed back into the cage, without ceremony.

It might choose the mountain girl, a break in her brother’s shepherd stick where the corpse fell.

Now she is the sister of ruin, knows what an eyeball does when dazed, full of exile.”

The next, from “The State of —” by Lena Khalaf Tuffaha, part of a collection of Palestinian poetry in the

Los Angeles Review of Books, is:

“Noun gerund of the verb (to journey)

A setting out, a departure

A boy’s voice calls out from beneath what used to be the second story of a house

I am here he cries can anyone hear me?

I am here and the night sky is sleeping on my chest

Noun gerund of the verb (to leave)

An exodus, a detachment

A father has gone in search of bread

A baker has gone in search of flour

A mother has gone in search of a cloud

A people have gone

A world in each of them

Noun gerund of the verb (to travel)

A parting, a demise

A girl steps on top of the walls of what used to be the third story of a house

I am searching for the sea she cries

Has anyone seen it? It used to live in my window


The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Can we have Ms Grant’s microphone, please?

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I am afraid that we are not hearing you, Ms Grant.

I call Ruth Maguire and will come back to Ms Grant when her audio has been sorted out.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Can we have Ms Maguire’s microphone?

Photo of Ruth Maguire Ruth Maguire Scottish National Party

The Scottish Government motion acknowledges that women’s equality has not yet been achieved and that it remains one of the greatest human rights challenges that we face. Although, fittingly, we take a global perspective today, we should be under no illusion that the root causes of the immense challenges that are faced by women and girls across the world are the same as they are here. The root causes of inequality and violence are the same. There is much work to be done in Scotland. Our previous item of business and the systematic misogyny that was highlighted during it lay that out starkly.

On that note, I will talk briefly on something that I have raised on a number of occasions and often in a half-empty chamber—I will keep doing so nonetheless—which is the frankly irrational position in our law as it relates to prostitution. Pimping websites operate free from criminal sanctions and men who exploit women by paying for sex enjoy impunity, while women who are abused through prostitution face penalties for soliciting. The Scottish Government’s decades-old position is that prostitution is violence, yet our legal system criminalises the victims of that violence—not the websites that are profiting, nor the men who are perpetrating the violence, but the female victims of it. It is illogical and unjust, and we need to move on from that.

No matter where we are in the world, peace and stability are precarious. Safety and security are about more than the absence of violence and war. Women’s experiences of peace and security in peacetime and wartime are deeply interconnected in a world that is marked by male violence and rising militarism. Globally, conflict and violence are on the rise. The accompanying human suffering is horrific, as we are witnessing in Ukraine, Yemen and Gaza. We know that women and children often bear the brunt of that suffering. I will speak about Gaza. In highlighting that, I acknowledge that colleagues have spoken about violence elsewhere. I have no hesitation in condemning violence, wherever it happens and whoever is perpetrating it.

Speaking about the situation in Gaza for women and children, Save the Children’s CEO, Inger Ashing, said that she was

“running out of words to describe the horror unfolding”.

I was struck by an article by Nesrine Malik entitled “In Gaza, there’s a war on women. Will the west really ignore it because ‘they’re not like us’?” She describes how the healthcare system there has been all but obliterated.

The charity Care International UK states that there are no doctors, midwives or nurses to support women during labour. There is no pain medication, anaesthesia or hygiene material when women give birth. Babies are born outside, umbilical cords are cut with whatever sharp object there is to hand and tins are filled with hot water to keep newborns warm. Caesarean sections, which are painful in their aftermath even when there are drugs, are being performed without any anaesthesia by surgeons who do not have water to wash their hands, let alone to sterilise them, and there are no antibiotics for any resulting infections. In some cases, according to the Washington Post, C sections were performed on women post-mortem.

If women and children do manage to prevail in those impossible circumstances, they are faced with displacement and hunger while nursing painful tears, wounds and malnourished babies. Pregnant women will have had to have made a 20-mile journey from the north to the south in Gaza, and they will arrive in circumstances that UNICEF describes as breaching famine thresholds. That is particularly concerning when it comes to the fate of tens of thousands of pregnant and breastfeeding women, the majority of whom can consume only one or two types of food. Mothers cannot access sufficient food or clean water to produce milk for their babies.

It is hard to find words to describe that horror. I am at the point where I am not sure how many more pictures of dead babies, women and children I can look at. I wondered if it might be helpful to share some things that people can do and some actions that they can take if they are feeling helpless. Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom provides some suggestions for immediate action. Those are to write to the UK Government and demand that it uphold its obligation, under

common article 1 to the Geneva conventions, to ensure that all parties to conflict follow international law, which should include calling for a ceasefire. You can lobby your Government for concrete actions such as sanctions to be taken against Israel if it does not comply with the United Nations Security Council resolutions. You can demand that your country cut off diplomatic relations with Israel if it does not immediately end its bombardment and siege of Gaza and start abiding by international law. On an individual front, you can also participate in a sanctions campaign. I urge people to find out about boycott, divestment and sanctions, which are legitimate and peaceful methods for tackling rogue apartheid states that have worked in the past and can work again.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Thank you, Ms Maguire. We now move to the final speaker in the open debate, which will be Rhoda Grant.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

You are coming through loud and clear, Ms Grant.

Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour

During the debate on international women’s day, I will speak again about commercial sexual exploitation, which is an issue on which we have made very little progress on tackling since last year.

The cross-party group on commercial sexual exploitation published a report on international insights and how Scotland can learn from international efforts to combat commercial sexual exploitation, and Ruth Maguire held a members’ business debate on the report’s findings, which were clear. Demand to purchase sex fuels commercial sexual exploitation. Countries that have challenged demand have cut commercial sexual exploitation and they have also cut human trafficking for sexual exploitation. Sweden was one of the first to criminalise demand. That resulted in a fairer and more equal society, equality in pay and equality in caring responsibilities.

The Scottish Government has recently published “Scotland’s strategic approach to challenging and deterring men’s demand for prostitution and supporting the recovery and sustainable exit of those involved in prostitution”. It is disappointing that that document brings forward no new policy for tackling men’s demand for prostitution. It recognises that those who are involved in selling or exchanging sex are victims of exploitation—that is not new—but it does absolutely nothing to rebalance criminality. Women selling sex will still be breaking the law, while men buying it will get away scot free.

The document summarises action to date. Like many Scottish Government strategies that are being published at present, it rehashes history and shows no vision and no ambition to tackle the problem. The CPG report quotes Tsitsi Matekaire, who summed up the situation perfectly by saying:

“Without the demand of those that are buying, the sex trade would not exist and thrive. So in order to end ... sexual exploitation it really becomes imperative to address the demand, and addressing demand in law means criminalising those who buy sex.”

Sadly, we heard in Parliament today about and recently saw Iain Packer’s conviction for the murder of Emma Caldwell and the abuse of at least 22 other women. If those women had not been at risk of being criminalised and if Iain Packer had been at that risk, would the police attitude have been different? Sadly, men are allowed to continue to abuse women because of our law in Scotland, which blames and criminalises women for men’s abuse.

After Ireland criminalised the purchase of sex, analysis by University College Dublin’s sexual exploitation research programme found that

“the 2017 Act has already increased the likelihood that women in prostitution will report violence committed against them without fear of being criminalised themselves”.

Our approach must be to deal with demand while supporting women who are exploited. If we cut demand, fewer and fewer women will be exploited. By only helping women in prostitution and not dealing with demand, we create a system of unmet demand that goes to even greater lengths to meet that demand. Human trafficking for sexual exploitation grows to meet that demand. In addition, the UK Government has passed laws on immigration that impact on those who are trafficked and will make it more difficult for trafficked people to seek help.

Every step that we take to provide more cover to exploiters leaves more women vulnerable. We need to learn from international experience. The cross-party group on commercial sexual exploitation carried out an inquiry into pimping websites, which provide even greater cover to people who would exploit and even less protection to the exploited. Within 48 hours of the USA banning pimping websites, all the major websites had stopped hosting prostitution adverts.

For decades, the Scottish Government has recognised prostitution as violence against women. It creates inequality. How can women be equal if they are commodities to be bought and sold?

Bringing in a ban is not easy; every country that has challenged demand for sex buying has faced pushback. Internationally, every change in the law to tackle demand has been backed by strong political leadership. The Scottish Government must therefore go back to the drawing board and come forward with policies that tackle demand. Government members must become leaders who are willing to take on entitlement, social norms and vested interests and take a stand for the exploited. We need that kind of leadership in Scotland.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

We move to closing speeches.

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour

The Scottish Parliament has a strong record in our commitment to improving the lives of women and exposing what sexism and discrimination look like in our daily lives. Crucially, in today’s debate, we are highlighting that the liberation of women from violence and discrimination is a global fight. I have enjoyed all the speeches this afternoon, and I am pleased that some men are still joining us to speak, because it is important to all women that men speak in such debates.

I also congratulate Kaukab Stewart, the first woman of colour in her post. As members can see, she is already getting under way with very serious work, and I fully support the programmes that the minister outlined today, which are working with African nations such as Malawi, Rwanda and Zambia.

New research suggests that boys and men from younger generations are more likely than older baby boomers to believe that feminism has done more harm than good and that women’s equality has gone far enough. I could not believe that when I saw it, but I have seen the figures, even if other members have not. The idea that women’s equality has gone far enough means that today’s debate is a testimony to the fact that we still have much further to go. As another member said, it is clear that women are still overlooked in everyday life and that we are still not represented in our full strength of being half the population in virtually every part of society, public or private.

Recognising the complex nature of intersectional feminism and the diversity of women and having different experiences is also important and worthy of further work.

Worryingly, a fifth of men between the ages of 16 and 29 also look favourably on social media influencers and self-proclaimed misogynists who have said that women should bear responsibility for being sexually assaulted.

Today, I raised with the First Minister the important issue of image-based abuse, which Jamie Halcro Johnston referred to in his speech, and I welcome the work that Siobhian Brown and Jenny Gilruth are doing in that regard. Girls are subjected to huge pressure from boys, and boys seem locked into stereotypes—somehow, they believe that they will gain respect from their peers if they participate in such action. Releasing intimate images without consent is a form of violence against women and can be damaging to girls’ lives in the long term.

The prevalence of easily accessible pornography is part of the picture. I raised the issue, as many other members did, in one of the previous debates. I mentioned the OnlyFans site in the most recent debate and raised my concerns about the safety and exploitation of women online. They need protection because men do not always stick to the rules. I met OnlyFans representatives, because they pursued me to meet them, and I pressed them on some of those points about women’s safety online.

Today, many of us have had the opportunity to meet the Caldwell family, who campaigned for almost 20 years for justice for Emma Caldwell. It is not only about the horror of her murder. The man at the centre of that had violated and committed crimes against other women, and, when I was looking at the issue over the past few months, what spoke to me was the justice agencies’ treatment—certainly 20 years ago—of women. Somehow, because of the lives that they led and the danger that they were exposed to, they were not taken seriously if they reported that they had been raped. Perhaps some things have changed, but a lot more needs to change.

Photo of Ruth Maguire Ruth Maguire Scottish National Party

Does Pauline McNeill share my opinion that the fact that those women could be charged is totally unjust? The law as it stands says that some of those women could still be charged with soliciting.

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour


I think that that is completely wrong. I agree with Ruth Maguire on that and with what Rhoda Grant had to say about commercial sexual exploitation of women, and I have believed that for a long time.

Many members have talked about women bearing the brunt of war. In every conflict, women face sexual violence and daily suffering. Maggie Chapman made the point that women are often very remote from any of the decisions that are made about war. Sexual violence against Israeli women and against Palestinian women is equally unacceptable.

I cannot speak without addressing—as other members have mentioned—what has happened in the Gaza strip in the past 150 days. Women in Gaza are steps away from famine and complete catastrophe, with no escape. I am grateful to my colleague Carol Mochan, who yesterday confronted us all with the reality of the 50,000 women in Gaza who are pregnant. Many of those women are malnourished and unable to breastfeed, and many of those pregnancies will not reach full term. There is no baby formula, and not enough aid is reaching the Gaza strip in order to give them a chance.

There are also women in the occupied west bank of Palestine who are forced to give birth, or who miscarry, at checkpoints. Some cannot get to their health appointments, and there are mothers who see their sons imprisoned under occupation and shot in the street. A resolution of the Palestinian conflict is long overdue. As Paul O’Kane rightly said, the only way to give all women, and men, in that region peace is by seeking a two-state solution.

Yemen, too, is a very poor country—in fact, it is the poorest country in the middle east. It is another country that is worth mentioning because it has the highest maternal death rates in the world: one Yemeni woman dies in childbirth every two hours from preventable causes. Child marriage is a coping mechanism that many Yemeni parents turn to as they deal with the precarious situation in which they are living. Families face not only mass displacement but devastating economic crisis and the collapse of many vital social services.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

You need to conclude.

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour

It is estimated that more than 7 million women throughout Yemen require urgent access to services that address gender-based violence, yet such services are extremely limited or completely absent.

In conclusion, I return to the global picture. The World Bank report that was recently published states that the gender gap for women in the workplace is even wider than previously thought, so it is clear that we have a lot to do in order to hand on a future to the next generations of women, so that they can hope for something much better.

Photo of Sue Webber Sue Webber Conservative

I am delighted to close the debate on behalf of the Scottish Conservatives. As we have heard, not only was the first female member of Parliament a Conservative; the first three, and only, female Prime Ministers to lead the UK Government were Conservative. We will always stand up for the rights of women and girls.

Today, however, is about talking about inspiring inclusion, so let us do some of that. The UK Government has passed the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, which covers England and Wales. I am proud to be in the same political party as my colleague Pam Gosal, who is bringing forward a similar bill on a domestic abuse register in Scotland.

I will swing back to talking about the global perspective. We have heard a significant amount about that today from colleagues on all sides of the chamber. Jamie Halcro Johnston spoke about how we must confront the persistent challenges that women face both in Scotland and globally, and the grave injustices around the world. Meghan Gallacher quite graphically described some of the images to which we were exposed following the atrocious terrorist attack on 7 October.

We also heard about the repressive measures that are enforced by the Taliban in Afghanistan, including the denial of education to women. However, I was delighted to hear from Beatrice Wishart about the Linda Norgrove Foundation, which is bringing Afghan women to study medicine in my home city of Edinburgh.

International women’s day celebrates the achievements of women and has done so for more than 100 years. As I said, this year’s theme is to inspire inclusion and create a better world by promoting the inclusion of women. We have heard at length today about the struggles that women face in accessing health services, particularly in those areas where there is global conflict and particularly if they are pregnant, given some of the horrific challenges—which we have heard about today—that arise from giving birth without proper medical supervision and without a sterile environment in which to do so.

Women bear more of the impact of global conflict than men do. Since 2017, there has been an increase of 50 per cent in the number of women who are living in areas of global conflict. Basically, women bear the brunt of war, and that should be a wake-up call for us all.

I want to pivot to more home-inspired things. Ruth Maguire said that the root causes of inequality across the world are the same ones that we face closer to home. Maybe it says something about my choice of television, but we have been exposed to some high-profile TV documentaries of late about women who have tragically lost their lives in the UK, including close to home. We heard about Emma Caldwell in the statement prior to this debate. We have heard about Fawziyah Javed, who lost her life very close to here when she was pushed off a cliff in what can only be classed as horrific domestic violence. Then there is Sarah Everard. We have to think about things that are going on close to home as well as globally when it comes to violence against women.

No one has spoken about the following yet, so I will try my best to do so—I promise that I have my eye on the clock, Presiding Officer. Having women in science, and all STEM fields, is a way to drive equality, give women a place on the global stage in terms of innovation and make changes to our own lives. That subject is important to me, given my background in medicine and healthcare and my degree in biochemistry from the University of Edinburgh. Despite significant strides, women remain underrepresented in those fields, facing barriers ranging from societal stereotypes to systemic biases—as members can hear, when you have to speed up to finish your speech in seven minutes, you can stumble over your words.

However, countless pioneering women have defied the obstacles and serve as role models for future generations—from Marie Curie, whose groundbreaking research earned her two Nobel prizes, to Dr Frances Arnold, a Nobel laureate in chemistry, for her work on the directed evolution of enzymes. Those trailblazers exemplify the immense contributions that women make to scientific discovery and technological advancement, which can help every single person in the world, including, most importantly, women. By celebrating their achievements, fostering mentorship opportunities and advocating for inclusive policies, we can inspire women to pursue careers in science and STEM, ensuring that their voices and talents continue to shape the future of innovation and exploration.

From a personal perspective, I was delighted to see that Caritas Science Solutions, a business in my region, recently won the small business of the year award at the Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce annual business awards. It is a clinical research organisation that puts people before profit, with a fantastic female chief executive officer, Leigh Fell, who I am unashamedly proud to call one of my very good friends.

However, work must still be done to ensure equality. We have heard the troubling statistics that Jamie Halcro Johnston and Sharon Dowey spoke of when they highlighted the violence that we face across Scotland and mentioned a justice system that is stacked against victims.

I want to say something else briefly. The minister mentioned Ukraine and the Ukrainian families that we have taken in in Scotland, and she said that we need a national system that works for everyone. I would like to bring it to the minister’s attention—it is convenient that the housing minister is in the chamber, too—that the system is not quite working right now. Fifty Ukrainian families and households are now being assessed as homeless in our capital city. We have had a slashing of budgets, and the City of Edinburgh Council faces considerable financial risks in helping our Ukrainian families live their lives well in Edinburgh. I would like to hear some comments on that.

Even though the status of women in Scotland and in the rest of the UK has generally improved, it is clear that more work needs to be done to achieve absolute equality across the sexes. We are calling on the UK and Scottish Governments to work together to support women’s rights in Scotland, the rest of the UK and abroad. International women’s day 2024 provides an opportunity to raise awareness and promote an inclusive and equitable society. It is a time to celebrate the achievements of women while also recognising the work that needs to be done to achieve greater gender equality. Whether it is through advocacy, activism or simple acts of kindness and support, we can all contribute to a world in which every person has equal opportunities to thrive and succeed, regardless of their gender.

Photo of Emma Roddick Emma Roddick Scottish National Party

I welcome the general consensus on the need to come together around what Carol Mochan described as “a common purpose”—achieving gender equality at home and globally. Those two aims are not separate, not only because—as Sue Webber and others have pointed out—their root causes are the same, but because we know that gender equality, by definition, will not exist until it exists for everyone.

Leaving any group behind—whether they are women of colour, displaced women or women living in the global south—is not an option. We understand that and we want to take action on gender equality across the board. Every portfolio in Government is tasked with considering the realisation of human rights and tackling inequality when making decisions.

Today, we focus on the work that is being done on a global approach and taking a feminist approach to international relations and international development. In doing that, we are proving ourselves to be a Government and a country that act on their principles and are effective and progressive voices on the world stage.

We recognise that gender inequality exists at home and across the world, so we want to play our part in protecting women and girls and in empowering them, no matter where they live, to tackle it. That is why, alongside extensive domestic work to break structural inequalities and to support women in Scotland with the distinct challenges that we face, we are taking steps to support women and girls across the world. We are doing our bit to empower and work with the women who stand the greatest chance—with a bit of support and solidarity and a platform—of progressing equality where they are, be they in Malawi, Rwanda or Zambia. That is what we are doing now as a nation with a devolved Government, and that is the tone in which we would, if we were a normal independent country, set out our principles and engage with nations across the world.

The theme of this year’s international women’s day is, of course, “Inspire Inclusion”. That is important because lack of inclusion, especially in decision making and prioritisation, means that people get left behind or forgotten. We know that climate change impacts women and girls more than it does men and boys. We know that women and girls are often impacted by sexual violence during war or are subject to escalating healthcare inequalities such as those that were described by Ruth Maguire.

We know that we can make change and influence progress by taking a feminist approach to international relations, from considering the impact on women and girls of trade decisions and arms exports, to sharing among ourselves and other nations experiences and best practice in achieving gender equality.

Meghan Gallacher, Carol Mochan and others all talked about the situations that many women and girls have been put in due to current conflicts, which have cost them their safety, their families and their lives. Scotland stands ready to support those who are fleeing war and persecution, and we will do all that we can to play our part in preventing such horrific harm and deaths by progressing gender equality globally. That will not be successful without the voices and experiences of women. We will not achieve gender equality without inclusion—intersectional inclusion, as was described by Marie McNair.

We want our international development work to be impactful on gender equality, and we want to recognise the need to decolonise the process—to remove the white gaze and ensure that everything is inclusive.

We must recognise the need to amplify voices, not speak for others; to actively question the expertise that we value; and to listen to those who have not been heard before and ensure that their views influence change. That is what we are doing through the new women and girls fund. We are engaging meaningfully with those who can effect change, supporting their work financially and enabling them to identify and meet their own priorities, thereby equalising power.

Karen Adam was right to talk about the need to continue making progress. She is right that this chamber is missing voices. There are intersectional inequalities at play that prevent many women from being active in public life. She was spot on in saying that, once we get here, we are often made to do extra work just to get on an equal footing. We must often force ourselves into a system that is not designed for us, and we must use the time and energy that male colleagues get to use in doing their jobs to make adjustments for ourselves. It was reassuring to hear Paul O’Kane reflecting on the need for him and other men here to do that work as well.

With the women and girls fund, we are trying to do that work with women who need the wider system to change to recognise their value, rather than making them do it all themselves. Karen Adam is right that we have to get our house in order. That applies whether our house refers to this chamber, this country or this planet.

As Minister for Equalities, Migration and Refugees, I will continue to work with Karen Adam and any other member in the chamber who wants to make things better and has ideas on how to move us forward.

Ruth Maguire was right to outline suggestions of what individuals can do, while recognising that the responsibility is on states to take ethical decisions about their international work. It is easy to feel helpless when one is standing against something as strong and large as global gender inequality, and historical sexism and misogyny, but there are things that we can all do—even things that are as simple as keeping up pressure on those who have access to the most power to make the changes.

I want to talk a little more about intersectionality and the importance of considering how intersecting inequalities require us to change our approach and remember those who are furthest from power or are unable to access the support and services that already exist.

Jamie Halcro Johnston touched on rurality. Although geography is not a protected characteristic, I see it as an equalities issue. I know that, like barriers such as disability, age, ethnicity and faith, geographical barriers can compound gender inequality. When I spoke with ORSAS—Orkney Rape & Sexual Assault Service—I heard about situations that exist on Orkney. The myths there around gender-based violence and inequality are very different from what we would hear if we spoke to RSASH—Rape and Sexual Abuse Service Highland—about the challenges with transport and other services that survivors face in rural areas.

The deeply embedded networks of power that protect perpetrators in those communities present differently from those in other communities. Tackling those issues as if the solution that succeeds in Wick or Glasgow will succeed in Kirkwall will not work. That should tell us a lot about the value of wider inclusion in the fight for gender equality. My experience of gender inequality has shaped me, but it is vastly different from the experience of other women in the chamber who have spoken in the debate. Their experiences, again, will be very different from the experiences of women across the world who are not engaged in politics. However, we all have valuable contributions to make in identifying the issues and undoing them. Missing out the voices of women in and from the global south is damaging not just to those women, but to the whole cause of gender equality.

I recently spoke to a constituent who is a poet, a feminist and a worker against sexual violence in the Highlands and Islands and beyond. Her name is Myra Ross and her poetry is on a window in my office, and it is garnering significant attention from passers-by, including other MSPs. I mention that because I want to quote a line from her poem “Imagine”. The poem imagines a world without sexual violence. It is a challenging piece and I wish I had time to share it all, but I will stick to these two lines:

“Imagine that with just one stroke their pain was wiped away

Imagine just imagine can we start that change today”.

We know that gender equality will not happen overnight and that we cannot wipe the pain away at just one stroke, but we can today make progress, make a difference to women and girls, no matter where they live, and start that change today.